Conscious Travel 101: Your First Steps

An Intentional Travel Plan

Traveling is one of the most fulfilling activities imaginable and something that everyone should do as often as they can (even in your home city). It opens your mind to the beauty of the world and the similarities (and differences) that exist between us. It stimulates the brain, satisfies the stomach, and puts your small place in the world in perspective. Who am I kidding? I probably don’t have to spend much time convincing you…

Given that the number of global travelers is increasing year by year, it is clear that the travel bug isn’t going anywhere (nor do I want it to). However, it is essential to be aware of the negative impacts caused by the increased number of wanderers. Mainly, the growing carbon footprint and the effects of overtourism (alienated residents, degraded tourist experience, overloaded on infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage).

In lieu of completely stopping traveling, I am taking steps to become as responsible as possible. It is indeed a learning process (hence “conscious travel 101”), but I am continuously educating myself so that I can (hopefully) make better choices. Conscious travel asks you to be mindful and considerate of the places and people you interact with while on the road. It means making some simple switches to lessen your negative impact, while also being more thoughtful about where you choose to spend your money.

In a lot of ways, I have been consciously traveling for years because it turns out that budget travel tends to be the most sustainable all-around – whoop! Taking buses instead of flying? Staying with locals instead of chain hotels? Dining at local eateries? Reading about the culture before arriving? Yes, all around. In fact, to me, many of the “conscious travel” principles are sort of obvious – they make for the best travel experiences. It is only recently that I have started thinking about these choices in terms of sustainability. Not that I am a saint, there are certainly plenty of other areas where there is room for improvement – offsetting my flights, carrying reusable utensils and shopping local markets rather than supermarkets (to name a few). 

I doubt this is going to be the last time I am writing about this topic; but, for now, here are what I believe are some of the most important principles for conscious travel.

How To Be A More Conscious Traveler

Tweak Your Transportation. The most significant way to reduce your travel carbon footprint is by making some tweaks to your normal modes of transportation. According to the EPA, 12 percent of all transportation greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the US come from airplanes. So, when possible, you want to look for ways to reduce the number of flights you take. While no-one is suggesting you have to take a boat half-way around the world, for shorter distances you can opt to take a bus, a train, or a car. When you have no choice but to fly, make sure to offset your flights and try to fly direct (I need to work on this). In other words, take one round-trip flight and then travel overland while there. Skyscanner now has an  “eco” marker for flights that emit fewer emissions. Generally, newer airplanes and budget airlines are more efficient. New ones are designed to be more fuel-efficient, while the budget ones fit more people on the plane. In your destination, opt to bike or walk around the sites, rather than taking a taxi. Not only do these leave the smallest footprint, but they also are a great way to get some exercise in while on the go. WIN-WIN!

Pack Zero-Waste Essentials. Traveling with your reusable water bottle (and coffee cup!) is an easy way to reduce your plastic waste. Many countries don’t have the infrastructure necessary to recycle plastic, and travelers make a significant contribution to the waste pile up by drinking bottled water. Luckily, many places have clean and freely available tap water, so there is no need to be buying bottled water anyway. If you are traveling to a place where you are concerned about the water quality, invest in a bottle with a built-in filter, or take purification tablets with you. Other useful items to travel with are a stainless steel straw, a reusable tote bag, and a bamboo utensil set. Throw them in your backpack, and then you can kindly (but firmly) say “no thank you!” to plastic straws, bags, and cutlery.

Support Local Businesses. I’m not embarrassed to admit that part of what I love most about traveling is shopping and eating. I mean, come on, it is the BEST. By avoiding chains and shopping local, you are helping to support the livelihood of the locals and their economy. This is true for souvenir shopping, coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels. Visit the local farmers’ market rather than shopping at a chain and dine in eateries that serve seasonal, local food. Your food will taste better, plus you can savor knowing that your choice is actively reducing carbon emissions. Similarly, opt to use local guides (I like With Locals) rather than chain companies. Not only will they give you true insider scoop, but you will know exactly who your money is benefiting.

Go During Shoulder Season. As more people are able to travel, more people are flocking to the same places. Yawn. By choosing to visit lesser-known cities and towns, you can have a positive impact on an economy (spread the wealth!), while not playing a role in the devastating effects of over-tourism. When you do visit the world’s most popular spots, try to go during off-peak periods. You will be rewarded with fewer crowds and cheaper accommodation, while also supporting the local community through the quieter months and easing the strain on local infrastructure during high season.

Respect The Culture. Conscious travel involves recognizing the local culture and history of the place in which you are traveling. Otherwise, why not stay at home? Before you travel, do a little bit of research into the culture so that you can dress and act suitably. Reading some background will provide you with a greater appreciation of the culture you’re visiting. And, it will make it easier for you to dive into the culture while you are there. Just try to keep an open mind to what you find. Except with unethical tourist activities (aka most things involving animals). Stay away from those. There’s no greater way to acknowledge a culture than by learning some words and phrases in the local language. Not only is it really fun, but it will also help you to be respectful when talking to locals. Speaking of conversing with locals, remember to be kind and patient with them – particularly if there is a language barrier. After all, you are a guest in their home! That pretty much sums up conscious travel – treat someone’s home as you would wish them to treat yours.

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